Five Fingers For Marseilles

FIVE FINGERS FOR MARSEILLES is a very cool 2017 South African movie. I thought it was gonna be a straight-up African western, but it turns out it’s a modern day African western. It’s set in a small town that European colonists named Marseilles. The Africans who originally lived there were forced up the hill, and since most of them worked on the new railway they just called their town Railway.

The title refers to a group of kids who fancy themselves the protectors of the town. It’s weird, though, because there seem to be six of them. The boys are Zulu (the leader), Tau a.k.a. Lion (“Ruthless, the fastest. Sometimes the meanest.”), Pockets (the rich one), Cockroach and Pastor. But also there’s Lerato, who they consider “their heart and soul,” so I sure hope she counts as one of the five and it’s Cockroach or someone who’s just an affiliate, not a full-fledged Finger, like Killah Priest for Wu-Tang. Seems like the heart and soul should get all the privileges of membership.

The kids ride bikes, tell stories, shoot rocks at each other, and when they see two white cops threatening Lerato’s dad (Jerry Mofokeng, LORD OF WAR, THIS IS NOT A BURIAL IT’S A RESURRECTION) for protection money they turn vigilante. Zulu and Tau throw eggs at the cops, shoot at them with slingshots, cause them to retreat. But the younger cop gets hit in the head with a rock, turns and sees Lerato behind him, so he pulls her into the back of their truck to arrest her.

Tau, who’s always being talked down from being angrier and more militant than the others, furiously chases after the cops on his bike, pulling in front of them on the dirt road, causing them to swerve and roll. Believing Lerato dead from the crash, Tau picks up a gun one of the officers dropped and shoots them both for revenge. When he realizes his mistake he doesn’t know what to do except run.

The lead of the movie is Vuyo Dabula (“Johannesburg Cop,” AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, “Presidential Guard,” INVICTUS) as the grown up Tau. We see him at the end of a prison bid, but I don’t think it’s for killing those cops, I think it might be for a robbery gone wrong we see glimpses of? I don’t know, the intercutting is a little confusing to me. The one thing I know for sure is that this shot here reminded me of the beginning of BLOOD & BONE:

Some time after he gets out, he and his two crime partners decide to split up and head home. Marseille has become New Marseille after the end of apartheid, and there are many more houses than before. Pockets is actually the mayor! That’s what happens when you grow up wearing suit jackets and sweater vests. Lerato (Zethu Dlomo, Black Sails) stayed up the hill in Railway, refusing Pockets’ offers to set her up with land below. She and her father run his bar, Lady Grey. Tau wanders in, has some whiskey and a western style encounter with a loudmouth, saves the life of a drunk white guy named Honest John (Dean Fourie, “First Inmate,” KICKBOXER 5: THE REDEMPTION), and gets kicked out. Lerato’s dad seems to recognize him, but she doesn’t.

Tau has a frightening encounter where he thinks he sees Zulu, somehow still young. Turns out Zulu died battling cops in the war that Tau started way back then, but this is his son, born right after. Lerato is his mother. He makes it more like a real western because he rides a horse.

In the classic western tradition the town is being terrorized and needs someone to fight back and bring hope to the people. The Five Fingers would’ve been good for that, but Tau left, Zulu died, some of the others sold out. Cockroach even joined up with the cops, who are in league with an evil gangster called Sepoko, The Ghost (Hamilton Dhlamini, OTELO BURNING). He’s a scary looking dude with one white eye who claims his mother was killed by lightning when she was pregnant with him and “I had to fight my way out of her charred body.” I gotta be honest, I would brag about that too if it was me. Try to bring it up casually all the time.

“Kinda rainy today, but at least there’s not lightning. Reminds me of how my mom was struck by lightning when she was pregnant with me and—“

“And you had to fight your way out of the charred body, WE KNOW, Vern, you bring it up all the fucking time.”

“Sorry, I couldn’t remember if I ever told you that.”

There are some enjoyable uses of classical action conventions, like when The Ghost wants to challenge Tau to a fight so he calls the name “Sweetface” and a giant bald white man named Sweetface – maybe the South African Robert Tessier – stands up out of a car, pulls off a blanket to reveal he’s shirtless, ready to fight, as if he’s been waiting there in case of a situation like this. Or when an Asian immigrant father wants Tau’s help with the police who harass him, because “you fight bad men,” and he says, “No, I’m the bad man! Stay away from me.” Or when the shit is getting ready to go down and his crime partners show up in town as backup and one of them says “You look like shit.”

(At least according to the subtitles. The movie is in Xhosa and Sesotho.)

It’s not an action extravaganza at all, just a few shootouts, but it’s got the goods. The setting of course is the main attraction. Shot almost entirely around a town also called Lady Grey, it has a variety of beautiful landscapes, both like and unlike the American and Italian westerns that inspired it.

And it’s just an interesting part of the world that we don’t see much on film, at least not in films that have found their way to me. The dirt roads and simple structures surrounded by desert overlap with what we’re used to in westerns, but we know it’s contemporary. Pockets is trying to get water into that town. The kids, and later some of Ghost’s men, wear a hodgepodge of winter coats, blankets, ski masks and things. It’s a cool look, somewhere between kids playing dress up and teens creating their own style. And the clothes are a sign of modernity within this pretty timeless setting and story.

One thing that only occurred to me afterwards: “First came the trains” is the first line of the movie, trains being crucial to the founding of Marseilles and Railway, but I think the only time you actually see one is when young Tau hops one out of town. I guess trains are kinda like the settlers that brought them – their effect on the people and land reverberate long after they’re out of sight. This is a story about a formerly oppressed people who are now free, and have new problems as they work to make themselves a better home. But they’re going to get past those too. Changing the world for the better is usually gonna be messy, and never gonna be perfect. We should do it anyway.

Director Michael Matthews is South African but I admit when I looked him up I was surprised to discover that he’s white. To me it seems like he did a good job of making an African, anti-colonial western, but I’m not the guy to judge that. For whatever it’s worth, it won Best Film, Best Film in an African Language, Best First Feature Film, Best Cinematography, and Best Production Design at the African Movie Academy Awards, and was nominated in five other categories.

I’m glad he only put one white guy in the movie, and didn’t make him a big hero or point-of-view character or anything. Here’s a good interview with Matthews and co-writer Sean Drummond, who says that Honest John was meant to subvert the way westerns would have a Mexican comic relief character.

Something I had totally forgotten is that Matthews’ one other movie so far is LOVE AND MONSTERS (2020), a post-apocalyptic monster movie that I’ve watched twice and think is great. Up next for him is 4 episodes of a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea TV series called Nautilus, and I hope he makes more movies after that.

This entry was posted on Monday, April 22nd, 2024 at 7:22 am and is filed under Reviews, Action, Western. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

One Response to “Five Fingers For Marseilles”

  1. Cool find! Indeed, this looks visually gorgeous, and I could tell from “Love And Monsters” that this guy had chops.

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